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Dry Skin (Xeroderma)


By Karen McKoy, MD, MPH, Assistant Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Harvard Medical School; Senior Staff, Lahey Clinic Dermatology

Xeroderma is simple dry skin.

Normal skin owes its soft, pliable texture to its water content. To help protect against water loss, the outer layer of skin contains oil, which slows evaporation and holds moisture in the deeper layers of skin. If the oil is depleted, the skin becomes dry.

Dry skin is common, especially among people past middle age. Common causes include

  • Cold, dry weather

  • Frequent bathing, particularly if using harsh soaps

  • Atopic dermatitis

  • Older age

Bathing washes away surface oils, allowing the skin to dry out. Dry skin may become irritated and often itches. Sometimes it sloughs off in small flakes and scales. Scaling most often affects the lower legs. Rubbing or scratching dry skin can lead to infection and scarring.


  • A doctor's examination of the skin

Doctors diagnose dry skin when they see dry, mildly to moderately scaly skin that comes off in small flakes.


  • Moisturizers

  • Other measures to prevent dryness

The key to treating simple dry skin is keeping the skin moist. Taking fewer baths and using lukewarm instead of hot water allows protective oils to remain on the skin. Moisturizing ointments or creams containing petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or glycerin can also hold water in the skin and should be used immediately after bathing. Moisturizers that contain certain substances such as lactic acid or salicylic acid can also be used. Harsh soaps, detergents, and the perfumes in some moisturizers irritate the skin and may further dry it.

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